Beefing Up Africa's Food Security

By 2050 the United Nations projects the global population will reach 9.8 billion people. The African continent will account for the majority of the growth, with forecasts suggesting the population will more than double to 2.4 billion.

“This poses a huge challenge for agriculture in Africa,” Purchase, CEO of Agricultural Business Chamber (Agbiz), an organization representing the interests of cooperatives in South Africa. 

Food security is top of mind for many countries on the continent, especially South Africa, which is one of the few major exporters of agricultural products.

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations defines food security as “a situation that exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.” 

While South Africa is the top country in Africa for food security, it ranks 47th on the Global Food Security Index, just ahead of 48th rated Russia and behind 42nd ranked China. The U.S. is rated first overall.

Click on the map to visit the Global Food Security Index and access a clickable map.



“Purchasing power is a key element to food security. In South Africa we have a population where appoximately 50% of households do not have means to source food affordably,” Purchase says. The minimum wage is 3,500 rand ($270) per month, which is $20 less than the weekly minimum wage in the U.S.

Despite low wages, beef is a stable at meals in South Africa. Biltong, a version of beef jerky, is found in stores across the country and more than 40 lb. of beef was consumed per person in 2014, according to USDA. In 2016, the U.S. exported 201,000 lb. of beef to the country.

South Africa has a diverse agriculture system but land productivity and water accessibility are major issues. The World Wildlife Fund reports only 12% of teh land is fertile enough for farming, while 69% is best suited for grazing. 

According to Agbiz, an association of agribusinesses that operate in southern Africa, cattle account for 11% of agriculture production in South Africa, ranking behind poultry at 16% and corn at 13%.

To help with food security in the region, Klaus Eckstein, CEO and head of crop science for Bayer in Southern Africa, believes there needs to be more investment in agriculture, particularly for smallholder farmers.

According to data from South Africa Statistic’s Community Survey 2016 of Agricultural Households, the total herd count is 13.9 million head. However, only about 3 million head of cattle are processed each year leaving the potential for additional production. More than 580,000 people own cattle in South Africa, but only 17,822 farms have herds of more than 100 head. The overwhelming majority are smallholder farmers, with 409,782 producers owning 10 head or fewer.

According to USDA, South Africa is the largest beef producer in Africa and ranks 13th internationally, producing 1.55% of the world’s beef.

“Africa is a continent of hunger, unemployment, under productivity and has not been self-sufficient, spending millions of dollars to buy commodities,” Eckstein says. “On the other side, Africa has some major success stories to tell.”

Diversity in Cattle

Learn about South African farmer Brylyne Chitsunge's views on food security and the role women will play.

Brylyne Chitsunge hopes to change the way black, female farmers are viewed in her country.

“In this part of the world men believe that women have no business in owning a farm,” says Chitsunge, who began farming in 2010. “We need to break down those barriers.”

Black Africans own the majority of cattle at 50.5%, followed closely by white cattle owners at 47.3%. People of mixed African and European heritage own about 2% of cattle, and people of Indian or Asian decent make up the remaining 0.2%. Men own 77.4% of the cattle.

Chitsunge owns and operates Elpasso Farm near the town of Cullinan near Pretoria where she raises cattle, goats, chickens, rabbits, ostriches, pigs and tilapia fish. Vegetables are grown on the 1,000-acre farm to sell at local shops.

Raising cattle is a passion for Chitsunge with a prized Nguni bull fully mounted in her living room. Elpasso Farm grazes kikuyu grass with a herd of Nguni—an indigenous breed tracing its roots back more than a thousand years—cattle that are worth more for their hides than beef.

In the past few years Bonsmara, a breed developed in South Africa at the Messina Livestock Research Station from 1937 to 1963, have been added to a crossbreeding program. Crossing Bonsmara with Nguni has helped improve the frame size of Chitsunge’s cattle herd. However, the cattle still don’t bring in as much as the purebred Kalahari Red goats she sells internationally.

“As women I think we can help with food security,” Chitsunge says.

Chitsunge describes herself as a 21st century farmer, and she can operate every piece of heavy machinery on the farm. When Chitsunge needed help learning new practices, she relied on neighboring white farmers.

“Let’s educate the little ones,” Chitsunge says. Agriculture skills and infrastructure need to be passed down to the next generation.

“The world needs to be fed,” Chitsunge says. “The stomach doesn’t care about your political views, your color or your class. It only cares about one thing: food. The time to act is now.”

African Feedlot

Beefcor started in 1973 as a 1,000- head feedlot, just 50 miles from Johannesburg. The cattle feeder has evolved to a 30,000-head feedlot, with a 20,000-head backgrounding farm on surrounding pastures. The developing business shares 50% ownership in a packing plant and markets branded beef in grocery stores across the country under the Beefcor label.

“We buy cattle from all over South Africa and also from Namibia,” says Pierre Franken, feedlot manager. Cattle coming from the neighboring country of Namibia spend 24 to 28 hours in transport to the feedlot. The Namibian cattle and those coming from the Western Cape are given two days to rest before being processed through the chute. 

Cattle spend approximately 115 days on feed, consuming 23.15 lb. of feed while gaining up to 4.3 lb. per day. The majority of male cattle in the feedlot are bulls. Castration is not common in South Africa, while Namibian cattle tend to be steers.

“We’ve got a lot of variation in our groups of calves that come in,” Franken says. Truckloads of cattle are usually mixed between multiple owners with varying weights and breeds. Calves are bought at 400 lb. to 550 lb. and go through a backgrounding program before entering the feedlot.

“Our biggest problem healthwise, like all feedlots, is pneumonia (respiratory disease) accounting for about 90% of our problems. Second to that it would be lameness or digestive upsets,” Franken says.

Cattle are vaccinated for pneumonia, anthrax and receive a seven-way clostridial upon arrival. Morbidity hovers around 10% in the drier summer months, but in the wetter winter months it can rise to 30%. Mortality is 0.5% to 0.6% in the summer and rises to almost 1% in winter. Feedlot pens are regularly walked on foot.

Finished cattle are slaughtered at 1,000 lb., dressing at 58% and yielding a 550-lb. carcass.

Like the U.S., profitability in South African cattle production relies on several market factors.

“Last year was one of the worst in the feedlot industry,” Franken says.

Widespread drought caused corn production to be near all-time lows and feed prices increased 40% to 50%. Adjustments were made in the ration at the time. Since then, feed prices have come back down as the area received more moisture. 

Because of the drought, there was more culling in cowherds, fewer heifers were retained and conception rates went down. “Our normal buying pattern for heifers is about 30% of the lot. Last year it went up to 45%,” Franken says.

Take a tour through the Beefcor feedlot with the video above.

Brand Turns Into Company

The van Zyl family traces their South African farming roots to 1702, but the ZZ2 name harkens back to when the family purchased the “ZZ2” brand to identify their cattle. In 1906, brands were being sold by the government to help raise funds after the Boer War in South Africa.

Today, ZZ2 employs up to 10,000 people and farms “Cape to Cape” in the southern part of the continent. Tommie van Zyl heads the company as CEO for a business that is owned by two family trusts.

Van Zyl says ZZ2 is not the typical South African farm. “Instead of being a farm he handed down to the next generation, my father created a company,” he says.

ZZ2 has evolved from a cattle ranch into the largest producer of tomatoes in the Southern Hemisphere. Other crops include: cherries, dates, apples, pears, mangoes, avocados and onions.

Tomatoes are grown on 4,940 acres of open farmland at 11 farms and 370 acres in net houses at four farms. “We probably have 50% of super market sales for tomatoes in South Africa, but tomatoes only make up 10% of our business,” van Zyl says.

Cattle are still a major part of the operation, with ZZ2 running the largest Pinzgauer breeding farm in the world. PinZ2yl cattle are a breed the farm developed by crossing Pinzgauer with Nguni.

“The PinZ2yl has the hardiness of the indigenous breed and the growth ability of the Pinzgauer,” van Zyl says.

Purebred Nguni and Santa Gertrudis are also marketed through the seedstock operation. Commercial cows make up two-thirds of the 6,000-head cowherd. Cattle graze pastures around the farms and on resting tomato and onion farmland.

Cattle helped create the current farming enterprise and is the foundation of the fertilizer program for ZZ2’s fruit and vegetable operations. Manure is bought from local smallholder farmers who keep their cattle locked up in corrals at night. The manure is collected from individual farm’s corrals every other year to create compost for crops like tomatoes.

The system fulfills their goal: “ZZ2 wants to be the benchmark of success in agriculture by creating sustainable value for all its stakeholders as a living, open system,” van Zyl says.

Three Takeaways From My Visit to South Africa

1. Beef is Cheap, Cattle Cheaper

A ribeye cost $8.43 per pound in South Africa, compared with $9.97 per pound in the U.S. At a Chalgrove, South Africa, sale on June 20, 27 bull calves at 510 lb. sold for $114.34 per cwt. At an Oklahoma City Stockyards sale June 19, 58 steers at 534 lb. brought $164.22 per cwt.

2. Jobs Matter

Many large farms I visited had several employees and they all had smiles on their faces because they were happy to be working. First quarter 2017 unemployment was 27.7%.

3. Political Issues Remain

During my trip, the largest political protests since apartheid were held, calling for impeachment of President Jacob Zuma, after he removed five cabinet members. Despite pushback, he’s proposed confiscating land from white farmers without compensation.


Editor's Note: Wyatt Bechtel attended the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists world congress in South Africa, touring farms and networking with journalists from across the globe.


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